Sad is the bleat of the Cleveland baseball fan. He turns out a million strong each year to watch his Indians play, but during his nine- or 18-inning stay in Municipal Stadium he spends as much time jeering his favorites as he does cheering them. And the next day he is almost certain to be telling his neighbor or the fellows he works with just how bad those Indians looked.
If someone reminds him that the Indians have compiled a remarkable record over the past eight years (averaging 95 victories a season, second in all major league baseball only to the New York Yankees, who have averaged 97½) and that they are at the moment firmly established in second place (which is where they usually are), he is odds on to reply: "Second. That's right. Second to the Yankees. They're always second. They can't beat the Yankees." And that, in a sentence, is the trouble with Cleveland. They finish second, not first.
Of course, as Al Lopez, the patient, reasonable, intelligent man who manages the Indians, points out, the trouble is not so much with the Indians as it is with the Yankees. Cleveland's good teams finish second only because New York's better teams finish first: the only high place left is second. Is this disgrace? In the last nine seasons only Cleveland has beaten the Yankees to the pennant, and they've done that twice: in 1948 and again in 1954. If it were up to the rest of the league, New York would have won every American League championship since 1947.
Moreover, in the latest bubbling of overweening Yankee superiority—six pennants since 1949 in the seven-year managerial tenure of Casey Stengel—only one American League team has been able to defeat the Yankees directly in the series of 22 games each club plays with each other every season. Which? The Indians.
These are sound, solid arguments in favor of the Indians as a ball team, but they won't sell the Cleveland fans. Their dissatisfaction with being "champions of the American League outside New York" is a compliment to their own high standards and possibly their patriotism, if you remember the advertising slogan that insisted, "It's so American to want something better."
Unhappy Cleveland wants something better. The citizens have had enough of second place—they want to be first. And they don't understand why they aren't. They point to the great Cleveland pitching. Pitching is 75% of baseball, they declare. The Indians have the greatest pitching staff in major league history. In the last nine seasons, they argue, the Chicago White Sox have had only one 20-game winner. The Boston Red Sox have had only three. Even the awe-inspiring Yankees have had only six. Cleveland has had 14. With pitching like that, why do the Indians finish second?
The principal reason—if you will forget the power of the Yankees for a moment—is that in essence the Cleveland team is an island of pitching set in a sea of mediocrity. The baseball axiom that pitching is 75% of baseball does not mean that you can get along without the other 25%. Yet the Indians try to and, since that remaining 25% presumably includes hitting, fielding, base running and thinking, the Indians struggle, stagger and finish second.
The bleak fact is that the Indians are simply not a very good team. They have one excellent all-round ballplayer in powerful Al Smith, who can hit and field and throw and run bases and think. Power-hitting Al Rosen, Most Valuable Player in the league in 1953, has been hampered since by successive injuries to finger, thigh and knee. He has been a valuable, if erratic, player, but the fact that he is no longer the most valuable player infuriates a segment of the Cleveland citizenry. These sportsmen have singled Rosen out as a target. They boo him for almost everything he does, even when he gets hurt (SI, May 28).
Rosen has been out of the lineup since he banged his knee blocking third base against an onrushing base runner, and Gene Woodling, a good outfielder, has been ill. Their substitutes, the Euphony Twins, Rudy Regalado and Rocco Colavito, have had trouble in literally hitting their weight, and neither weighs as much as 200. Smith has not been hitting the way he should. Neither has anyone else, really, except the bald-headed Pennsylvania Dutchman, Vic Wertz, who has recovered beautifully from the polio he contracted late last year and who is coming up with a .300-plus average and a clutch of home runs. Wertz, however, isn't enough. Unless their few big men hit, the Indians suffer, because their batting order has long stretches of desert where batters should be: against the White Sox last week the Indians had a lineup with only four men hitting better than .215.
The Indians agree that their hitting this year has been bad but, oddly enough, they refuse to complain about their fielding, though in truth it is consistently less than brilliant, particularly in the infield. But they point with pride to Smith, to Jim Busby, who is a fast center fielder, to young Colavito, a right fielder with a good arm, and to Jim Hegan, the fine veteran catcher who is undoubtedly an important adjunct to the gold-plated pitching staff.
They insist that Rosen, of all people, has played wonderfully well at third base. They insist Second Baseman Bobby Avila is "a good ballplayer and he plays a good second base." They say Chico Carrasquel has been sprightly and sharp at shortstop.
Maybe so. But maybe, too, the standards of fielding value in Cleveland are lower than elsewhere. Rosen has always fielded well only in streaks, depending on how well healed his injuries were at the moment. The sad truth is that Carrasquel is not the shortstop he used to be, and that Avila is only an ordinary second baseman. And Wertz, cheerful, courageous and strong though he may be, is a bad first baseman.
It is a tribute to the pitching and to the patient skill of Al Lopez that the Indians have had such a consistently good record. The pitching staff has four superb starting pitchers (Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, Herb Score and Mike Garcia) and two equally good relief pitchers (Don Mossi and Ray Narleski). Such stalwarts as Art Houtteman and the aging (37) Bobby Feller are a strategic reserve. Lopez, who understands men, baseball and the law of averages, does not panic in adversity. He puts the best players he has on the field. But his best are not good enough. He plays them anyway and suffers in silence, choosing not to blame his players for failing to possess the skill he wishes they had.
If he covets Casey Stengel's perennial wealth of good young players and wonders why so many of the bright Indian prospects seem to wilt in the glare of the major leagues, his yearnings are understandable.
In Boston they blame their front office operation, and the same criticism is heard in Cleveland. All clubs make bad trades at times, but Indian fans hungry for base hits resent the fact that players like Larry Doby, Mickey Vernon, Minnie Minoso and Harry Simpson, whom the Indians traded away, are key men on other clubs. They charge that the Indians are sold and resold in stock transactions like futures in cotton. Others, such as the Yankees, have front offices stocked with baseball veterans identified by the fans with their clubs. But Cleveland's ownership has been disquietingly vague, although it is known to include a first baseman as well as a ticket seller and assorted financiers inexperienced in the direction of a ball club.
It's hard to root for what appears to be a financial football, hard to cheer for the agenda at the meeting of the board of directors.
When the flamboyant Bill Veeck turned Cleveland into the most phenomenally successful baseball operation in history just after the war, baseball was a holiday in Cleveland. The attendance records the Indians established then still stand, most notably the season mark of 2,620,627 set in 1948. The financiers who bought out Veeck managed somehow in just a few short years to change the atmosphere in Municipal Stadium from carnival to lecture on dried prunes, from raw, emotional excitement which permeated all Cleveland to an irritating dullness which is permeating all Cleveland too.
Poor hitting, listless fielding and the repetition of one second-place finish after another have a lot to do with it, but part of the trouble in Cleveland lies elsewhere. It isn't the pitching, that's for sure, and it certainly isn't the managing, not when you analyze what Lopez has accomplished with that ball team. It may not even be in the front office, but if you have to have a culprit that's as good a place as anywhere to situate him.